The Rebel Sell

Fight Club. Adbusters magazine. American Beauty. No Logo. Each one a rallying cry against consumerism, a wake-up call to alert us from our advertising-induced slumbers. Right?

Not according to The Rebel Sell. The article – an excerpt from a new book – posits that Naomi Klein’s anger at yuppies in her local area is driven by irritation at her loss of social “distinction”, that American Beauty is about cool, not anti-consumerism, and that Adbusters is just another magazine that you buy in a newsagent.

How can we all denounce consumerism, and yet still find ourselves living in a consumer society?

The answer is simple. What we see in films like American Beauty and Fight Club is not actually a critique of consumerism; it’s merely a restatement of the “critique of mass society” that has been around since the 1950s. The two are not the same. In fact, the critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for more than 40 years.

It’s interesting and inflammatory stuff. I might track down the book.

Please excuse the dust

…but I’ve finally got round to updating the blog template and in typical blogger style, republishing the entire weblog isn’t working properly. There’ll also be some display weirdness on older blog posts, particularly ones with inline images (the new template uses slightly different column widths than before).

Tired, unhappy

“Make sure you’re sitting down before you open this.” Not the subject line you want to see on an email from your accountant; it turns out that I’ve made a complete and utter arse of some tax stuff and as a result, I’ve got until 31st January to find a sum of money that’s even bigger than the sum of money I reckoned I had no chance of raising by then. Maybe I should become a celebrity blogger:

Liberals are wusses! Saddam is evil! Pay with PayPal!

Hmmm. Maybe not.

I think I’ll have to classify this week as a write-off: not only have I landed in deep tax trauma, but I’ve got a bloody sore back, I managed to stab my tongue with a toothbrush while half-awake the other morning, I’ve got writer’s block and there’s the beginning of The Biggest Spot of All Time on my chin.

On a brighter note, I’ve discovered that Java is the crack cocaine of the coffee world. Tasty, too.

Current reading

I keep meaning to blog about books and then forget all about it, but I’ll try and do this on a reasonably regular basis. Here’s s quick round-up of stuff I’ve read recently:

The Five People You Meet In Heaven, Mitch Alborn
If you liked The Lovely Bones but hated the ending, this will be right up your street. It’s a bit folksy but it’s a nice (and sad) little story.

Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Alborn
Alborn’s first book was a non-fiction memoir covering the time he spent with a dying professor. A blatant tear-jerker but that’s never a bad thing.

Love All The People, Bill Hicks
A collection of Hicks’ stand-up routines, letters, interviews and so on. It’s fairly repetitive – especially the routines – and there’s little here you won’t find online, but it’s still a good compendium for Hicks completists.

The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
An excellent what-if book: what if the US had turned to Fascism in the 30s? Told from the perspective of a Jewish family, it’s particularly unsettling because the landscape – Washington, diners, main street USA – is so familiar.

Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo
A state of the nation novel that takes place in a single day, as a tycoon tries to get across the city for a haircut. One of those books you feel you should read, but that leaves you with an “is that it?” feeling on completion.

Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language And Music (And why we should, like, care), John McWhorter
More than an Eats Shoots And Leaves rant about grammar, McWhorter’s book argues that we’ve lost something special from our language and from pop music. Good argument fuel for language geeks.

We The Media, Dan Gillmor
An in-depth look at the blogging phenomenon and its implications for the future. Probably not a good Xmas present for your Gran.

Blogging and the underpant gnomes

One of my favourite South Park episodes features the Underpant Gnomes, who have a plan for world domination:

Step 1: collect underpants
Step 2: ?
Step 3: profit

I’m reminded of them any time I browse the various journalism jobs sites, where you’ll invariably spot jobs that aren’t jobs, all of which have been posted by the internet equivalent of the Underpant Gnomes.

Jobs that aren’t jobs? Underpant gnomes?

A job is something you do for money. Jobs that aren’t jobs are those job listings that look like job ads, read like job ads, have the same requirements as job ads, but have one key difference from job ads: there’s no cash involved. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. Instead, you’ll be offered “exposure” and, if you’re lucky, an unspecified share of the unspecified profits that will result from an unspecified level of success at an unspecified point of time.

This, then, is what they’re offering would-be writers:

Step 1: write stuff for us
Step 2: ?
Step 3: profit

And this is their business plan:

Step 1: get people to write stuff
Step 2: ?
Step 3: profit

As I said, they’re underpant gnomes. But the explosion of blogging has given them a new lease of life, and the same old ads are starting to reappear – but this time they’re headed “bloggers wanted” rather than “writers wanted”.

The reason for the resurgence in such adverts is that the people behind them have looked at weblogs and thought “hey! People write for free! That means they’ll write for free, for me!”

What amazes me about the write-for-free crowd is that their ads wouldn’t be acceptable in any other industry. For example, some people like tinkering with cars. Can you imagine if a garage placed ads looking for mechanics, charged its customers for any work carried out, but expected the mechanics to work for free? Some people like doing DIY. Would a firm of painters and decorators hire new employees on the understanding that they wouldn’t get a penny for their efforts (Work experience aside)? Yet when it comes to writing, there’s this assumption that businessmen and women – which is what the people behind these ads believe themselves to be – should pay for every aspect of their business except for the important bit: their site content.

Think I’m exaggerating? I saw one ad a few weeks back (can’t remember the URL, sorry) looking for bloggers, whose content would be syndicated across 17 different web sites. The pay? Zero. The promise? Exposure. The employer? A large chain of local newspapers – that is, a perfectly profitable business that pays its existing writers, but expects people to provide its online content for free. Meanwhile the firm will sell ad space on its sites, and the blogs would drive traffic to those advertisers – and the bloggers wouldn’t get a single penny. You can bet that the firm asked its existing writers first, and those writers said “sure, at the usual rates” – so the newspaper publisher thought “aha! Bloggers!” Is it me, or is that taking the piss?

Journalists have some experience of this – and we’re pretty good at spotting the scams. For example, about a year ago I was approached by a music site who wanted to re-run an article I’d already stuck on the web. We talked for a bit and it turned out the site was strictly non-profit, designed as a resource for musicians. Great, I said. Go ahead, reprint away. And then a month later I visited the site and discovered that my article was being used to sell advertising, the profits of which were being kept by the site owners. Underpant gnomes. Cue some very irate emails and the article being removed from the site (it’s still online, ad-free, on my own music site). Writing for free? Sure. Writing for free so that someone else can make money from my work? No chance.

It’s important to point out that the internet underpant gnomes aren’t hobbyists, or charities. They’re people who have decided that there’s gold in them thar interwebs, and that the way to get that gold is to get lots of people to provide content for nothing. That’s the online equivalent of opening a shop and expecting Nike or Armani to give you all your stock for nothing, with no cut of any sales.

Of course, bloggers write for free – but free of charge doesn’t mean free from benefits. You might run an amazon wish list, or google ads. You might blog because you want to flex your writing muscles, or because you’re obsessed with a particular firm, film star or technology, or because you’ve found that blogging is a much easier way of communicating than posting on spam-filled newsgroups or avoiding flame wars on messageboards. Or you might blog because you’re a journalist who wants to mouth off about any old crap (raises hand). There are almost as many reasons for blogging as there are bloggers, and they’re all valid.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t blog for others at all. For example, like-minded bloggers could and do get together to create multi-author blogs for no financial reward, and that’s great. However, far too many of the “writers wanted” (and now, “bloggers wanted”) ads are something very different: someone that intends to set up a business and wants people to help them do that for nothing.

In most cases those “businesses” are doomed from the start: let’s start a gadget weblog! Yeah, that’s a great idea, because Engadget and Gizmodo don’t exist. Let’s start a Republican blog! Aye, because there aren’t any of them on the web. A music weblog! Yeah, that’ll sell lots of ads. In most cases these sites will disappear in a fairly short time without generating a single penny, and the time and effort you’ve put into such sites would have been much better spent on your own weblog. If you’re not being paid, any benefits that derive from your writing should go to you.

If you buy this weblog your life will be better

Over at Batflattery, Stephen ponders the nature of gadget addiction, iPod love and other 21st century obsessions.

Some of the most creative of us spend their working time persuading us that we can have it all, or at least that we can have what their clients are selling. (Spending so much time at it, no doubt, that they have no time to actually live out the precepts of their own creations.) And they are very, very good at it. The cumulative effect is a kind of life-spanning Attention Deficit Disorder, as we flit from one product to another, trying to capture the portrayed lifestyle and experience the ersatz pleasure we see acted out with such consummate skill before our eyes, but without enough precious time to invest in any of them to really make it work. Serial frustration, always falling short of the impossible dreams of advertising.

I suspect that, as someone who spends most of his time writing for consumer magazines, I’m one of the creative types he’s talking about: as the word “consumer” suggests, most magazines have an overt or covert agenda, which is “buy stuff”. The agenda’s overt with “what car”, “what camera”, “what stick” and so on, but Whether it’s Q, Empire, Word, GQ, computer magazines, Official Xbox magazine or any other title, the purpose of most consumer publishing is to persuade people to buy things. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it keeps me in a job, for a start – but it’s important to keep your brain working when you read that a £500 laptop case will change your life.